Judith Kerr was right, time flies for adults, but childhood lasts half a lifetime | Tim Adams

My daughter’s 18th birthday left me reflecting on the author’s wise words about experience and memory

My younger daughter celebrated her 18th birthday last week and I was reminded of something that the great children’s writer Judith Kerr said to me, well into her own 95th and final year: “We live our lives in two distinct halves,” she said, over lunch, with all her twinkling brightness intact. “The first half lasts until we are 18 and the second is all the years that follow.”

Kerr, who grew up in Berlin and escaped the Nazis to England, had more reason than most to think of her childhood lasting as long as the subsequent 77 years, but her perception is more universally true.

Science offers a couple of objective explanations for time accelerating as we age. One shows how the brain literally gets slower at perception in adulthood and therefore progressively processes less of life. Another proves that we naturally encode only new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory, which explains why in later life many of us can recall our school classrooms or our first drink and kiss (usually in that order) better than almost anything that happened six months ago.

In childhood and adolescence, we encounter countless novelties; as adults, we experience fewer unfamiliar moments and less time is stored away. I’m not, therefore, wrong in feeling it is only five minutes since my daughter was taking her first magical steps in the world – or that in those minutes she has crammed in enough experiences to last half a lifetime.

Two cultures

UAL alumnus: Helen McCrory performs in Uncle Vanya in New York in 2003.
UAL alumnus: Helen McCrory performs in Uncle Vanya in New York in 2003. Photograph: Matthew Peyton/Getty Images

The Observer’s offices are near two of London’s most striking recent buildings, the Francis Crick Institute and the Central St Martins campus of the University of the Arts. The former is a world leader in biomedical research, the latter in cutting-edge design, art, drama and music. To walk past either – in more normal times – is to experience a vicarious shiver of curiosity at the busyness and invention going on inside, a sense that the future is under construction. The proposal last week from the education minister, Gavin Williamson, to cut by 50% the amount spent on “high cost” higher education arts subjects reinforces the belief that his government is interested in only one half of that future.

Under his plan, student spending for non-science and health subjects will be slashed from £36m to £19m, with more cuts to follow. Institutions such as University of the Arts London will lose nearly £4m. “Our proposed reforms are designed to target taxpayers’ money towards the subjects which support the skills this country needs to build back better,” runs the government explanation.

Presumably that rebuilding places scant value on the lucrative talents of, say, Helen McCrory, Alexander McQueen, Katharine Hamnett, Terence Conran or thousands of other distinguished alumni of UAL.

Intent on pursuing its culture wars, the government seems happy to overlook the fact that the creative industries added £115bn to the UK economy in 2019, or more than 100 times that of the fishing industry for which it seems so keen to go into battle.

Cold comfort

Nancy Mitford
Nancy Mitford: still relevant, alas. Photograph: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Ima

TV adaptations of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love have been produced at 20-year intervals, since the first series aired in 1980. Another, directed by Emily Mortimer, begins on BBC1 tonight. Even Mitford might have imagined that, by now, her pitch-perfect insider’s view of the venality and snobberies of a perennially entitled English ruling class might have felt like an amusing period piece. Sadly, as ever, many of her observations feel bang up to date.

• Tim Adams is an Observer columnist

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Tim Adams

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